Last modified: Sunday, February 18, 2001 2:03 PM


Big yawn...Another article on Articulation? Actually, it's sort of coincidental since I've been working on this skeleton and there's all this recent news of Hasbro's and InToyz's superarticulated figures (Ha! Predictable bastards... I knew someone was gonna do articulated fingers! ;^). I can't really claim this as a regular "project" since someone else made the skeleton and I'm just altering it for my purposes. I believe in thematic tie-ins, so the pseudo-porn piece, "Livia Gets the Bone", naturally begat this one, a.k.a. "Livia Gets a Whole Buncha Bones". Every evil sorceress on this side of the river Cliché has Skeleton Minions, so why shouldn't mine? Anyway, this is a work in progress so some of the stuff has been done, some are ideas, and some are things I'll probably later change. In this case, the skeleton's already paid for so I don't mind bringing you an article of a conversion-in-progress.

As you know, these 12" skeletons have been around a long time and they're not part of The Big Conspiracy to make 12" figure collectors poor. They're marketed as educational products and the luminous ones have a Halloween tie-in. Because of this, stand up poseability isn't their strong suit. They're usually displayed suspended from a pole with their joints dangling by some means. This one is from the "Skeleton and Bones Book". It's a very realistic sculpt of a skeleton in a flexible PVC-ish plastic (the slippery, slightly waxy feeling kind) and is intended for snap-together assembly by kids. The joints are very simple pin-retained design, with only slight pressure tensioning provided by the flexibility of the plastic. Their main purpose is to hold the thing together. Furthermore, there aren't as many axes of movement as you find in a typical 12" figure. For example, the arms only rotate in the shoulder socket-- you can't raise them out to the side.

You might think that a skeleton would be an ideal conversion since it's the basis for our own articulation. How much more authentic can you get? Not so, depending on your approach-- our bone hinges aren't stuck together with pins or sandwiched between pressure tensioned housings. Bones are joined by tendons and tensioned with muscles. There's some play in the joints unlike those which are constructed as hard parts pinned to each other. Human wrist rotation is accomplished by entirely different means than toy wrist rotation. Basically, the typical toy figure tries to simulate with hinges what tendons, muscles and soft tissue do. A more accurate simulation would be a wire-- aka "bendie" -- linkage. It's omnidirectional and twists, holds poses well and doesn't require an intrusive and ugly mechanism. For near-human realism in poseability, wire works. I'm not talking about Gumby here: Embedding the wire in stiff segments representing the skeleton gets you pretty close. It has one big problem though. Flexing a wire causes metal fatigue and sooner or later the wire breaks. If you embed the wire in a skeleton, all the flexing is going to be focused on the short length of wire between the segments. Can you say "bad knees"?

For toys, the metal fatigue problem is a significant drawback because there's a detectable point at which the metal breaks. Toy makers and consumers would prefer that a toy not break, but instead wear down and become unuseable, or "floppy". That way you don't have to admit it's broken-- it's "loose" or "worn". For the Do-It-Yourselfer, embedded wire's a bitch to fix compared to hinges, so I wouldn't consider using it for major articulation (knees, elbows, shoulders, legs). Wire does seem acceptable for other less-used articulation points like the fingers. For those small parts, a hinged articulation approach looks funky and robotic. For things like the spine, wire is more acceptable: It's a lower traffic joint which doesn't require as acute bending as the elbows. The flexing is milder and distributed over its greater length.

For hard pin hinges, the main problem in a skeleton is that the connection parts are very small and thin. Most doll hinges are too large to be grafted on (Well, you could but it would look damn stoopid). The other wrinkle is that plastic pin hinges usually don't have the stay-put poseability of wire. Fortunately, there is a very small radio-controlled airplane nylon hinge with a crimp-able aluminum pin which works nicely in some situations. (I used a larger version in my "Lindsey" figure.) Because this part has rotation and hinge axes, it works well for the shoulders. If you've drilled the right size hole in the shoulderblade, the conforming properties of the plastic will hold the nylon hinge pin pretty securely. However, the other end is more difficult. I grinded out a pocket in the upper arm and embedded the majority of the hinge in it. There should be enough clearance for the hinge to swivel with good range. Yeah, it doesn't look as good as the virginal piece, but that's always the case with articulation. This hinge wouldn't work as well at the hip since the skeleton's hips parts don't give you much room to hide the mechanism's attachment. In this case, the aesthetics easily guide the decision: butt-ugly articulation versus limited articulation? You decide.

(Unfortunately, the China Strike Gal showed up, breaking up the flow of this article. This is a cheap attempt to show you what you really want to see. I'll get around to reviewing her later-- hey, it's Valentines Day! And yes, she appears to have a wire embedded skeleton. And no, I'm not going to test to see how quickly they break.)

At this time, at the legs, knees, elbows, feet, and hands, I've retained the original hinges of the original skeleton. I just added material at the joints so that the hinge was tighter. This is less intrusive than sinking hinge pins and looks a lot better too. One benefit of this being a skeleton is that it's lightweight: Those hinges don't need to support a lot of weight. That's a limitation too. Such a light figure can't heft a heavy metal weapon because it would create balance problems, regardless of the strength of the hinges.

The hands were equipped only with wrist rotation. I kept that, but sliced out a section of the hand and drove a pin through it to give it a standard hinge. The skinny pin works because this particular type of plastic holds it in place. At this time I'm still agonizing over how I can do the finger pinning. Those are the thinnest fingers I've ever come across!

Putting poseable articulation in a skeleton does pose (!) some unique challenges. This discussion should give you an idea of some of the issues facing a conversion like this, for what is essentially a specialty naked figure. Making reasoned choices and compromises is part of the game, and the choices you make should be influenced not only by aesthetic and practical concerns, but by the properties of the material you're working with. Does it melt? Can it be superglued? How does it take sanding, grinding, razor blade cuts, drilling, piercing? You need to know this sort of thing before you begin cutting things apart.

--Jimbob, 2/14/01 Happy V-Day. Get some.


02/16/01- (It's tough to work when you get interrupted by the arrival of new toys.) Moving right along, and focusing on the hands... I don't imagine that many of these skeleton kits have much in the way of hand articulation, and they're probably not going to be molded in a grasping pose. But that's a desirable thing if you want your skeleton doll to shoulder a Stinger missile launcher. You have several options:


02/17/01- Here's the other hand using wire instead of hinge pins at mid-finger. Well, true... it's not "real" articulation, but they do hold their pose better. The hinge cut only suggests to the wire which way it should bend since the plastic's pretty flexible when it's cut so thin. The concept is a lot like what Dragon did with the Neo Eve figure (minus the skin and plus the hinge cut). You may notice that I added the finger base cut instead of following the molded cut lines. Those seemed too far up, and I couldn't tell from my own hands how things were supposed to be laid out. I didn't want to slice them open to find out, either.

A caution when drilling waxy plastic like this: Let the drill twist guide the hole: Don't apply too much force because the bit may bend and wander out in an undesirable direction. To seat the wire securely, the longer your drill holes are, the better. With such small pieces, you only get one chance to drill the hole properly. In waxy plastic like this and with a small bit, trying to correct a drill hole usually doesn't work.

Yeah, putting the third joint in would be kewl, but then I'd only be 2/3rds of the way through... Ugh. Notice that he's got a plastic Marx sword instead of a metal Jimbob one: It's a good idea to match figures to what they're capable of handling. Wonder why you've never seen a skeleton warrior actually win a swordfight?

Okay, I lied... I am that anal... But enough, dammit! This is starting to look like an arthritis medicine commercial.

I am not going to do his toes!


02/18/01- I hate to bring the hands up again, but I decided to look it up. I got the articulation wrong: There's actually one more set of hinges before the fingertips. I have no clue how you'd fit those in, and I ain't even gonna try. It's interesting to see how the bones hook up with the skin overlaid though. It seems to me that there are Toys and there is Reality and never the two shall meet.

In other areas: The knees were marginal and since they were an easy fit, I added the R/C airplane hinges there. They're only visible from the back, so they look okay. This had a twofold benefit: It gave stronger knee hinges and gave the shins a rotational axis so that the feet could be rotated. The ankles have a limited hinge, but it's only a short swivel up and down.

At one of the vertebrae beneath the ribcage I added rotation articulation by cutting and drilling both halves and installing a small snipped-head screw in between. I did the same thing in the upper section of the arms, at the lower third, above the elbow. This is similar to a vintage Joe's bicep rotation. Initially I was hesitant to do it this way, figuring that it's preferable to combine that kind of articulation in the elbow hinge. Given the size and structure of the parts there, I couldn't see how it could be done and still look good. But the bicep swivel is a crucial articulation point for expressive posing and fortunately, the crosscut isn't vey noticible, so I can live with it.

Our shoulderblades are weird: Arms are connected to them, but they're floating and held in place by muscles and our collarbones. It doesn't translate very well to toy mechanics, and as constructed, the arms were angled inward. In order to get the shoulders to better match the traditional articulation orientation for a toy doll, I had to re-mount the shoulderblades more parallel with the back. This necessitated extending the length of the collar bones.

Finally, the head only was capable of rotation, so I added tilt. The spine's plastic was too thick and stiff to work with a wire insert, so I separated a couple of the neck vertebrae, drilled, and inserted a wire through. Since I didn't want them to twist, I put a small pad of hot glue between them.

That ties up just about everything I can think of to do with this figure. The stuff I didn't mess with was left as is because improving the articulation would have compromised the appearance too much. That's the crucial issue of "adult playworthiness" (knew I'd squeeze that in somehow!). If our goal is to make these guys look when good posed, articulation and surface appearance are both important. They're just two different parameters that go into the equation. For each figure/costume/scenario, there's a balance between the two parameters which produces an optimum result.

Most of this article has been about the hand articulation, which was really the main challenge and most interesting part of this project. Construction-wise, it was fun. But in all honesty, it's not too practical-- they're fragile, but really more of a pain in the ass because they're too poseable. Every time I worked on something, I removed the hands because I didn't want to have to readjust them if I accidently nudged 'em. It works against that "adult playworthiness" thing even though they improve the visual potential: The setup process shouldn't be too frustrating (like figures that can't stand up). It makes you appreciate the simple, solid hands that you can just squeeze a weapon into.